Dominant Blues edged out

Craig malcolm is a man on a mission its takes nearly the whole of Ayrs team to stop him
Craig malcolm is a man on a mission its takes nearly the whole of Ayrs team to stop him
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Ayr United 2, Stranraer 1

Shaun Niven

at Somerset Park

Home, away or neutral? It didn’t really matter at on Saturday as everyone – including the most partisan Ayr supporters – trooped out wondering how Stranraer had failed to win.

This was a performance that for most of the match was as good and as dominant a show as the Blues have produced for a long time.

The root of Stranraer’s problems – and of Ayr’s success – lay in a bizarre opening 20 minutes in which Ayr gained the initiative with some clinical finishing while Stranraer looked sluggish in the extreme and in need of a wake-up call.

Ironically, it was the Blues who had a good shout for a penalty turned down in the opening minutes when Mark Staunton put Darren Gribben clear and as he clashed with Chris Smith and went down in the box in front of the home supporters, the referee waved play on.

Perhaps the Blues were still dwelling on that but indecisive defending saw neither defenders nor goalkeeper attack a harmless looking cross from the left by David Sinclair and Adam Hunter ghosted in at the far post and neatly lobbed the ball back over David Mitchell to open the scoring.

Mitchell and Mick Dunlop then had their wires crossed and the confusion almost allowed Michael Moffat to sneak in between them. However, the warning signs were not heeded and Hunter turned provider for a second goal. Moffat rose to head goalwards and Mitchell saved but his parry was unconvincing and fell into the path of Michael Donald who made no mistake and rammed the ball home.

Ayr were in control and Stranraer needed the alarm bells to start ringing. Finally, the penny dropped when another bout of kamikaze defending as both Staunton and then Lloyd Kinnaird failed to clear and Moffat arguably should have made it three but struck the crossbar from close range.

Stranraer forced a corner as Gribben saw his shot deflected wide but it signalled that the visitors had gained the resolve that had been missing in opening 20 minutes. Kinnaird crossed from the right and, with Neil McGregor unable to get any distance on his clearing header, it fell to Grant Gallagher who volleyed goalwards but Graeme Smith threw himself across to beat the ball away.

Ayr then caught the kamikaze defending bug as Smith, McGregor and John Robertson all contrived to lose the ball to Robert Love on the left. He squared to Craig Malcolm who had time to set himself and pick his spot but to his horror after doing everything right he hit the post.

It was one-way traffic and Love was next to be denied by the goalkeeper as he latched on to a Kinnaird cross but the former Motherwell and Hibernian stopper stood firm again. Smith saved once more as another Kinnaird cross reached Malcolm this time and his glancing header was gathered by the inspired keeper.

There was time for another decent penalty claim, the better of the two as Chris Smith clearly controlled the ball with his arm following a corner but the referee and the linesman both deemed this not to have been intentional enough to warrant a spot kick. Malcolm headed over, Gribben had a header saved by Smith, Love was slow to react to the rebound as the Blues continued to dominate before the save of half followed.

Malcolm did brilliantly to tenaciously challenge the goalkeeper for a loose ball in the six-yard box. He knocked it back for Sean Winter who seemed certain to burst the net but Smith somehow produced an outstretched hand to superbly touch the ball over at point blank range.

Ayr gained a brief respite with a rare attack after the restart and as Moffat’s deflected shot found its way towards Liam Buchanan at the back post a timely challenge from Dunlop denied him an opportunity. Mitchell continued his afternoon to forget by dropping a cross but he went unpunished as the Ayr strikers couldn’t react to his mistake.

Love kickstarted the Blues’ efforts with a great run to track an advance by Ayr and he robbed Donald with a crucial tackle just as the home midfielder seemed set to score. Malcolm chased a lost cause for the Blues and, after stealing the ball off Smith, he advanced and, in two minds, his cross-cum-shot failed to find Gribben or test the goalkeeper.

Love had the ball in the Ayr net but after latching on to a through ball and tucking it away saw an offside flag. With time running out the Blues threw on another striker in Michael Moore in a desperate effort to grab a goal their efforts deserved. Less than a minute later the desired effect had been realised.

Gribben and Moore were both involved in trying to win a high ball and it dropped to feet of Craig Malcolm, who drilled a low shot on the turn that finally saw Smith beaten and the Blues had a lifeline.

The pressure on the home side continued and another moment looked to have gone against them when goalscorer Hunter received his marching orders for a tackle on Chris Aitken. It seemed a touch harsh but also represented a chance for Stranraer to claim something from the game.

Ironically, it seemed to work the other way as Ayr succumbed to ultra-defensive tactics and shut up shop to try to retain the advantage they held. Frank McKeown had perhaps the best chance late on as he pounced on a loose ball following a corner but his shot was blocked in the crowded goalmouth and Ayr managed to hold on to claim all three points.

A devastated Stephen Aitken could hardly summarise how disappointed he was that the better team on the day had failed to win. Stranraer missed enough chances to win three games but the sloppy goals given away early had been costly and the score unfortunately didn’t represent a true reflection of the game.

Ayr manager Mark Roberts was relieved afterwards. Reflecting on the missed chance to go three in front that could have killed the game, he conceded that Stranraer had been excellent and battered them. Prior to match he had challenged his squad to finish the season with eight victories, so he was delighted at the efforts of his team to claim the first one. Like many other observers, he thought Graeme Smith had been outstanding in goal and certainly was deserving of the man of the match.

With Stranraer’s midweek match at Brechin falling a victim to the weather and the state of the Glebe Park surface, this Saturday sees a true six-pointer take place at Methil where the Blues have an opportunity to put some daylight between themselves and East Fife.

Ayr United: Graeme Smith, John Robertson, Austin McCann, Neil McGregor, Chris Smith, David Sinclair, Adam Hunter, Scott McLaughlin, Michael Moffat, Liam Buchanan (David Winters 78), Michael Donald.

Subs Not Used: Mark Shankland, Darren Brownlie, Aaron Wylie, Ally Brown.

Booked: Buchanan

Sent off: Hunter

Goals: Hunter 7, Donald 11

Stranraer: David Mitchell, Lloyd Kinnaird (Ryan Borris 78), Mark Staunton, Frank McKeown, Mick Dunlop, Chris Aitken, Sean Winter, Grant Gallagher, Darren Gribben, Craig Malcolm, Robert Love (Michael Moore 66).

Subs Not Used: Jamie Campbell, Armand Oné, Russell Cadwell

Booked: Aitken, Gallagher, Love, Staunton

Goal: Malcolm 67

Attendance: 1022

Referee: G Hilland